JMM Insights, June 2015: Farewell to Mendes

Posted on June 19th, 2015 by

As the nation celebrated Flag Day this past Sunday, the JMM made one last connection to the life of Jewish Baltimorean extraordinaire, Mendes Cohen, through activities and a talk with conservator Michelle Pagan that explored one of the most iconic objects on display in the exhibit, the flag that Mendes.  Mendes created the flag in 1832 as he sailed up the Nile River proudly displaying his love for his country. This event marked the culmination of our ten month celebration of the life and times of Mendes Cohen and his family. We were thrilled by the positive response we received from visitors, many of whom expressed their surprise at never having heard of Mendes before, as well as their delight in finally ”meeting” this amazing man.

The following is a summary of exhibit highlights:

Accolades – Coverage of the exhibit on WYPR and MPT, as well as in articles in the Jewish Times, the Forward and Humanities (the magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities), helped spread the message encouraging people to come and discover the story of Mendes Cohen. It was hard to top the Forward’s review which encouraged readers to “Forget the National Aquarium: The Cohen exhibit – along with the museum’s permanent exhibit, “Voices of Lombard Street” makes the Jewish Museum of Maryland a must visit for tourists to Baltimore.” To cap things off, the JMM was a recipient of the 2015 Leadership in History Awards Winners for The A-mazing Mendes Cohen by the American Association of State and Local History.

On the cover of the Baltimore Jewish Times

On the cover of the Baltimore Jewish Times

PartnershipsThe A-mazing Mendes Cohen is an example of a model collaborative project and was brought to fruition through several important partnerships. We opened the exhibit during weekend festivities celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Baltimore which gave us the opportunity to partner with several local agencies and to be part of such anniversary events as the commemoration of the Battle of Bladensburg and the Defenders Day Celebration at North Point.

Mendes at Bladensburg

Mendes at Bladensburg

The Maryland Historical Society, as the repository of the bulk of the Cohen family papers, was vital to the exhibit’s success. We are so grateful to Burt Kummerow, president of MHS and his staff, for granting us access to their rich collections of material and to lending us such important documents such as the firman that Mendes received from the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire allowing him entry into Palestine and his travel diary.

Travel Firman, courtesy of Maryland Historical Society.

Travel Firman, courtesy of Maryland Historical Society.

As we began planning the exhibit, JMM executive director Marvin Pinkert had a brainstorm that proved transformational.  He reached out to Kelly Fernandi of Minotaur Mazes and the notion of capturing the twists and turns of Mendes’s life through a physical maze design was born. Kelly became an enthusiastic member of the Mendes Cohen Fan Club and contributed not only to the exhibit design but also to content and image research. Thanks to weekly meetings (by phone as Kelly is based in Seattle) we enjoyed a high degree of collaboration with our designer whose strong vision for the exhibit helped shape its final outcome.

New Findings – Each new exhibition involves extensive research in the JMM’s archives and collections as well as at other repositories. While we thought we knew a lot about Mendes Cohen and had previously created an educational resource kit exploring his connections to 19th century Palestine as well as published an article in Generations, our knowledge about Mendes and his family continued to expand as we uncovered new information through many different sources. Thanks to the painstaking efforts of researcher, Joseph Abel, Ph.D, who transcribed the bulk of the letters that Mendes wrote home from abroad, we were able to place Mendes at many seminal 19th century events including the student revolts in Paris, the coronation of a new king in England and the installation of a new Pope in Rome.

A couple of very special visitors made it to the last day of The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen!

A couple of very special visitors made it to the last day of The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen!

The most wonderful new piece of research was unveiled at our penultimate program, an exploration of the Cohen Family Tree. The exhibit claims that there are no known descendants of Israel and Judith Cohen. Genealogist Dick Goldman decided to challenge this assertion and was able to find new branches of the family descended from Alan Cohen III who changed his name to Clarke (hence, our difficulty in finding relatives) after he converted to Catholicism. Alan’s grandson Ronald Brown was one of our very last visitors to the exhibit on Sunday.

The Ghost of Mendes Cohen – The exhibit served as inspiration for the development of the JMM’s newest living history character, none other than Mendes himself, who comes back from the grave to revisit select moments from his incredible life. After debuting performances during many of the War of 1812 commemorative events that took place last summer, Grant Cloyd, the actor who portrays Mendes, has been busy visiting schools, synagogues and other venues. We look forward to continuing to offer performances even beyond the duration of the exhibit.

Grant Cloyd as Mendes

Grant Cloyd as Mendes

Education – More than 300 teachers and 2100 students participated in field trips and living history performances in conjunction with The A-mazing Mendes Cohen. Students from local public, private, parochial along with Jewish day and congregational schools visited the JMM.  We also had student groups visit from the outlying counties, including Howard, Montgomery, Prince Georges, and Anne Arundel County. Students visited from Forest Hills, New York and Philadelphia,  and also came from Ashkelon, Israel – Baltimore ‘s Sister City in Israel.

JMM educators created a rich array of educational resources including archival exploration activities (giving students the opportunity to explore primary sources related to his life), puzzle making games and scavenger hunts. Because Mendes’s life connected with so many important worldwide events, we were able to tie in school visits and resources with a wide array of curricular objectives.

The Gunpowder Challenge

The Powder Magazine Challenge

All of the students loved the interactives in the exhibit- especially the powder magazine and the world map stringing activity.  Students loved racing against the clock to ensure that the magazine did not explode.  Students loved learning where Cohen travelled and learned names of countries and cities throughout Europe and the Middle East.  Students also loved hearing about Cohen’s journal entry of July 4, 1832, documenting his travels on the Nile River, hoisting the flag made by Cohen’s Egyptian crew. Students also thought that it was “very cool” to see the actual flag that was hoisted on Cohen’s ship as well as  some of the Egyptian antiquities that Cohen brought back to Baltimore.

Mendes' hand-made flag, 1832

Mendes’ hand-made flag, 1832

Programs – The JMM held a record number of public programs this year and many of them were inspired by the life experiences of Mendes. Through panel discussions, scholarly and author talks, performances and family workshops, we explored such topics and themes as the War of 1812, 19th century travel, Egyptology, the fight to pass the Jew Bill, textile conservation and genealogy.

Hieroglyphs from our hands-on Egyptology Family Day.

Hieroglyphs from our hands-on Egyptology Family Day.

We were especially pleased with our Mitzvah Day program, inspired by Mendes’ attempts to piece together his identity, we made puzzles for children spending the holidays in The Walter Samuelson Children’s Hospital at Sinai Hospital. It was a wonderful day that saw families work together to create something really special. In total we made enough for all of the children visiting the hospital over the holiday period.

Senator Ben Cardin address the Annual Meeting crowd inside the Lloyd Street Synagogue. Photo by Will Kirk.

Senator Ben Cardin address the Annual Meeting crowd inside the Lloyd Street Synagogue. Photo by Will Kirk.

This year our Annual Meeting was also inspired by Mendes, specifically his time spent in office. We were honored to welcome Senator Ben Cardin to the museum to be our keynote speaker. A surprising success was our Sephardic Lecture Series, inspired by Mendes’ own heritage. We had two great programs exploring Sephardic history and Ladino.

During the course of the exhibit we started to record some of our programs, if you missed one of the lectures above check our website, you may still have a chance to explore a little more of Mendes Cohen’s life.

The maze is packed and out the door, the flag and jacket are back in our vaults – Mendes, like Elvis, has left the building – but the legacy is still with us.  As a team, we had so much fun with this project.  Don’t be surprised if Mendes and his siblings join us again in a future project.

 

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A Heady Brew: Magna Carta, Whiskey and Jewish History

Posted on June 15th, 2015 by

I know that everyone has today marked on their calendars as a birthday – probably not your birthday – but the birthday of Magna Carta.  It turns 800 years old today.  Now the reason it’s on my calendar is that for 11 years I was the steward of the only extant copy of Magna Carta in North America – the copy on display at the National Archives.

Magna Carta, 1297.   On display in the new David M. Rubenstein Gallery. Presented courtesy of David M. Rubenstein.

Magna Carta, 1297. On display in the new David M. Rubenstein Gallery. Presented courtesy of David M. Rubenstein.

Next Sunday I will be offering a free tour of the National Archives at 2pm as part of our Schnapps with Pops program.  We are headed to the “Spirited Republic” exhibit – the latest changing exhibit at the National Archives and the inspiration for our JMM program.  But given this important birthday, we’ll also be taking a side trip to see Magna Carta.

On view at the National Archives

On view at the National Archives

Magna Carta on display at the National Archives is in fact just 718 years old.  It was not signed or sealed by King John but rather by his grandson King Edward I.  So what makes it special?  Well, Magna Carta (Archives trivia – never supposed to write “the” Magna Carta, because it is a Latin name and bears no article) was not a singular act.  John put his seal on Magna Carta under threat at Runnymede and from the time the ink dried, John and his successors looked for ways to annul, rescind and evade it.  In this long series of royal pledges and revocations – the 1297 Magna Carta stands out because Edward agreed to an additional clause that enrolled Magna Carta in the statutes of England, settling the question of whether this was the permanent law of the land.

And the Jewish connection?  Ask yourself “why did the kings keep issuing Magna Carta if they had little interest in conceding absolute royal power?”  The fundamental answer is that they needed money and agreeing to a power-sharing formula with the barons was a way to stimulate their assent to new taxes.  The original strategy of the Norman kings to finance their rule of their new Anglo-Saxon domain was to bring over Jewish merchants.  In addition to developing the English economy, Jews were trusted agents of the monarchy – since their very presence in the country was at the sufferance of the king, the Norman rulers could count on their loyalty.

This helps explain Clause 10 in the 1215 Magna Carta.  It is a clause which relieves the baronial families of having to pay interest to Jews after the death of a baron.  Limiting the financial dealings of England’s Jews was seen as part of curbing the powers of the king.

When we put Magna Carta back on display in 2011, several reporters asked me if the absence of Clause 10 in the 1297 Magna Carta was indicative of a change in attitude towards Jews.  The answer was unfortunately, “no”, the clause is missing from this Magna Carta, because Edward saw fit to expel all Jews from the country in 1290 and therefore could not agree to regulate a trade that – at least on paper – had ceased to exist.

"Famous whiskey insurrection in Pennsylvania", an illustration from Our first century: being a popular descriptive portraiture of the one hundred great and memorable events of perpetual interest in the history of our country by R. M. Devens (Springfield, Mass, 1882). Image courtesy of the New York Public Library via Wikipedia.org.

“Famous whiskey insurrection in Pennsylvania”, an illustration from Our first century: being a popular descriptive portraiture of the one hundred great and memorable events of perpetual interest in the history of our country by R. M. Devens (Springfield, Mass, 1882). Image courtesy of the New York Public Library via Wikipedia.org.

And what about the whiskey connection?  Well, “Spirited Republic” is dedicated to the story of the federal government and alcohol, and most of that story is about how the federal government would support itself.  The very first American insurrection, more than 60 years before the Civil War, is the Whiskey Rebellion – a pitched battle over the tax on alcohol.  In the post-Civil War era, as much as 40% of the federal government’s income rested on liquor excise taxes.  This is why the advocates of prohibition helped push through the 16th amendment establishing an income tax before advancing the 18th amendment banning the sale of alcohol.  The exhibit contains several documents from Jewish distillers before, during and after prohibition.

So I could frame the connections between Magna Carta, whiskey and Jewish history as being all about the struggle for human liberty… or we could agree that it is all about one of life’s two certainties – taxes.

See you on Sunday!

See you on Sunday!

If you are interested in taking Sunday’s tour, it is free but you must RSVP to Trillion (tattwood@jewishmuseummd.org) by Wednesday so that we can give the National Archives a final count on attendance.

 

Marvin PinkertA blog post by Museum Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




Ancient Egypt at the JMM

Posted on May 18th, 2015 by

I became involved in the development for The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen as I have a background in Egyptology, it isn’t something I ever expected to use when I started working at the JMM but recently it has been put to good use. In addition to working on the exhibit I have been able to plan a few programs that also draw on this knowledge.

Last month we held an Ancient Egypt family day here at the Museum. We wanted to make sure it wasn’t just the usual discussion of mummification but something that would teach some of the skills needed by an early Egyptologist like Mendes. We planned a series of interconnected activities that showed some of the process an archaeologist follows.

Excavation

Excavation

Understanding how to excavate was our first aim, everyone received their own archaeological dig to excavate. We started by carefully dividing the site into sections, these would be essential for recording our finds accurately . As we dug we also spoke about the importance of stratigraphy and how it helps to date a site and the objects we find.

Due to some careful planning everyone found the remains of two ceramic vessels which were carefully recorded and collected for the next stage.

ancient 2

Finds Analysis

This was an important part of the day that really taught some practical skills. We examined the pieces we found, discussing rim sherds especially. We looked at how they can be used to create a better impression of how a vessel may have originally looked, especially the size of the vessel. We also discussed why ceramics are such a common find on archaeological sites and what they can reveal.

Reconstruction

Reconstruction

Once we gathered as much information as possible regarding our sherds we stared the process of reconstruction, this took a lot of patience and a little creative thinking, but eventually we were able to reconstruct our precious artefacts!

Hieroglyphs

Hieroglyphs

The one thing that no Ancient Egypt day would be complete without is of course hieroglyphs. All of the materials that were excavated came ready inscribed with their ‘original’ contents, including bread, beer, cobras and fish. Once the translation was done we took the opportunity to do some writing in hieroglyphs ourselves.

Grave Goods

Finally we explored some of the types of object an archaeologist might discover. Most of the material that survives from Ancient Egypt, including all of the antiquities on display in The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen, were originally intended for a funerary context. So we decided to make a few grave goods of our own including this fantastic death mask and some shabtis.

If you missed out on Egypt Day don’t worry! We have another great family day planned for June 14th, the closing day of The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen and Flag Day.

Trillion BremenA blog post by Programs Manager Trillion Attwood. To read more posts from Trillion click HERE.

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